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Consortium Says Israeli Spyware Used on Journalists, Activists, Politicians Around the World

Amnesty International joined a consortium of journalists in accusing governments around the world Monday of buying an Israeli company’s spyware to monitor journalists, politicians, union leaders and businesspeople.

(CN) — In what is promised to be a weeklong deluge of blockbuster reports, a collaboration of 80 journalists working for 17 media outlets in 10 countries say they will be releasing a trove of data and stories about spying organized by governments around the world.

Amnesty International is helping in the investigation, which the group has called the “Pegasus Project,” a reference to the Pegasus spyware sold by the NSO Group, an Israeli security firm, that several international governments are said to have used to surveil journalists, lawyers, activists and politicians they don't like.

Working under the aegis of the Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories, the consortium of journalists and human rights activists announced Sunday that it will be releasing this week information and stories based on a leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers selected for surveillance by the customers of NSO Group. It said the leak included phone numbers found in more than 50 countries since 2016.

NSO Group claims it sells its spyware to government clients to help them track and spy on criminals and terrorists. But the investigative consortium alleges governments misuse the spyware to target a wide range of individuals, including journalists, human rights activists, religious leaders, academics, businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, union leaders, diplomats, politicians and several heads of states.

It claimed the leaked data showed at least 180 journalists were targeted in countries like India, Mexico, Hungary, Morocco and France, among others. The targeted journalists included reporters, editors and executives at The Financial Times, CNN, The New York Times, France 24, The Economist, The Associated Press and Reuters, according to reporting from The Guardian.

The Pegasus spyware allegedly can be installed remotely on a smartphone without the owner of the phone needing to do anything.

“Once installed, it allows clients to take complete control of the device, including accessing messages from encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal, and turning on the microphone and camera,” Forbidden Stories said.

NSO Group charged that the consortium’s reporting was based on “wrong assumptions” and “uncorroborated theories.” It accused the media outlets of a “misleading interpretation of leaked data … which have no bearing on the list of the customers' targets of Pegasus or any other NSO products.”

The consortium said a small number of the phones targeted by NSO were analyzed by Amnesty International’s Security Lab and then reviewed by the Canadian organization Citizen Lab. The group said it found that 37 of the phones it studied — or 85% — were targeted by the Pegasus spyware.

Based on the leaked data, the consortium issued a number of reports Monday including one that says the telephones of people close to the murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi were on the list of potential targets.

After Khashoggi's killing in Turkey at the hands of agents sent by the Saudi Arabian government, the NSO Group denied its malware had been used against the journalist. The telephone of Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, was hacked four days after his murder, according to peer-reviewed forensic analysis of her device, according to The Guardian.

In another major revelation, the consortium reported Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's main political rival, Rahul Gandhi, was twice selected as a potential surveillance target. He was among 300 Indian numbers listed as potential targets by an official NSO client in India. The telephones of Indian politicians, journalists, activists and government critics were targeted, the consortium reported.

Among the Indian journalists targeted was Siddarth Varadarajan, a prominent investigative journalist and founder of the news site The Wire. He was allegedly hacked in 2018.

Another target was Szabolcs Panyi, an investigative reporter for Direkt36 in Hungary. His phone was apparently hacked for seven months in 2019. Hungary, a European Union member, is viewed with concern because its prime minister, Viktor Orban, has used heavy-handed — many say authoritarian — tactics to concentrate power within his hands.

“We’ve been recommending each other this tool or that tool, how to keep [our phones] more and more secure from the eyes of the government,” Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova said, according to Forbidden Stories. “And yesterday I realized that there is no way. Unless you lock yourself in [an] iron tent, there is no way that they will not interfere into your communications.”

One of the more disturbing findings is related to Mexico. The consortium reported that the telephones of at least 50 people close to Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador — including his wife, children, aides and doctor — were targeted for surveillance. In all, more than 15,000 individuals were chosen as possible targets, the consortium reported. The possible targets included politicians from every party, journalists, lawyers, activists, prosecutors, diplomats, teachers, judges, doctors and academics, the consortium reported.

Another disturbing find was in Morocco, where the consortium said more than 10,000 phone numbers were chosen for surveillance over a two-year period. Morocco is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy with a poor human rights record.

The consortium accused the NSO Group of selling its spyware to authoritarian governments with abysmal human rights records, such as Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The Guardian reported that the phone number of a freelance Mexican reporter, Cecilio Pineda Birto, was among those allegedly targeted. The journalist was later murdered when his killers located him at a carwash, the British newspaper reported.

“The Pegasus Project lays bare how NSO’s spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril,” Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International's secretary general, said in a news release.

 “Clearly, their actions pose larger questions about the wholesale lack of regulation that has created a wild west of rampant abusive targeting of activists and journalists,” Callamard said. “Until this company and the industry as a whole can show it is capable of respecting human rights, there must be an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology.”

The 17 media outlets involved in the project are the Guardian, Le Monde, The Washington Post, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit, Aristegui Noticias, Radio France, Proceso, OCCRP, Knack, Le Soir, Haaretz/TheMarker, The Wire, Daraj, Direkt36 and PBS Frontline.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union
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